Work Burnout: How to Spot Symptoms and What to Do

Despite popular culture coverage of the issue, burnout can’t be “fixed” with better self care, Dr. Maslach said — in fact, this implication only worsens the problem, because it lays the blame and responsibility on those with burnout and implies that they should do more to feel better, which is not the case, she said. However, some lifestyle choices can make burnout less likely. Social support, for instance, can help, Dr. Gold said. This could include talking to a therapist or meeting with friends (even if over Zoom). It may also help to take advantage of mental health or exercise benefits offered by your employer. Sleeping more can help too — so if you’re suffering from insomnia, talk to a doctor about possible treatments, Dr. Bennett suggested.

When burnout stems from job-related woes, it may help to request better working conditions. Dr. Maslach suggested brainstorming with co-workers and presenting your employer with ideas that would help — like providing quiet areas for breaks and personal phone calls, creating “no meeting” days so that employees can have more time to focus, or ensuring that there’s always coffee in the break room. Even small changes like these can make a dent in the risk for burnout if they fix a problem people face at work every day. “It’s the chronic job stressors that drive people really nuts after a while — they don’t have the right equipment, they don’t have the things they need, they don’t have enough people to do the work,” Dr. Maslach said.

Taking time off work could also help, but it’s likely only a temporary Band-Aid, Dr. Gold said. She compares it to using a bucket to empty water out of a sinking ship. “It’s still sinking, right? You have to do more than just occasionally take the water out,” she said. Still, it is important to take time off regularly, Dr. Dyrbye said.

Ultimately, you want to ensure you have some freedom and autonomy in your job, Dr. Gold said. “Anything you can do to regain an element of control can be really helpful,” she said. That could mean doing your least favorite work activity right before your break, so you have something to look forward to during the task and time to recover from it afterward. Or it could be trading a dreaded task with a co-worker and, in return, picking up their most hated task, which might not be so difficult for you.

Finally, while you may not want to add more to your plate, try to make a bit of time each day for something you love, Dr. Dyrbye said. Her work has found that surgeons who make time for hobbies and recreation — even just 15 to 20 minutes a day — are less likely to experience burnout than surgeons who don’t.

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